By Thomas Schreiner–
When we read the fairy tale Snow White, we encounter a witch that is very beautiful. She is beautiful on the outside, but she is ugly and wicked on the inside. The prostitute or harlot of Revelation 17 and 18 is like the wicked witch. She is charming and loving externally but inwardly she is poisonous. The lady harlot represents the world. The world is seductive and it glitters. It offers pleasures and delights that beckon us to forsake God.
I remember one of the first times I visited San Francisco. I was driving across the Bay Bridge on a beautiful clear day, and the city was breathtaking in its beauty. In the same way, Seattle at night is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. On the one hand, we see majestic buildings and on the other hand, we see the lights of the city reflected in the water. If you have been to Times Square at night, you have sensed the excitement and the thrill of being in the city. Cities are beautiful but they are also seductive. John warns us about the dangers of loving the city of man more than the city of God. John warns us about falling in love with Babylon. Our hearts must not be carried away by this world. The beauty of this world is seductive, and hence we must be vigilant.
The identity and influence of the prostitute (vv. 1-2, 9, 15, 18)
John tells us that the identity of the woman who is a prostitute is a mystery in v. 7. A mystery refers to something hidden that is now revealed. The mystery isn’t limited to the identity of the woman. The mystery also includes the destiny of the woman and her relationship to the beast. Notice that the woman is a prostitute, a harlot. I will say more about this in a minute. She is seated, according to v. 1, “on many waters.” According to v. 15 the many waters symbolize “people, multitudes, nations, and languages.” In other words, this prostitute has influence over tribes and peoples from all over the world.
The identity of the prostitute is revealed in v. 18. “And the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.” We are also told in v. 9 that the woman is seated on the seven mountains. When we put vv. 18 and 7 together, it is clear that John refers to Rome, for Roman writers regularly said that Rome was built on seven hills. Most commentators agree, however, that what John writes cannot be limited to Rome. What John writes refers to the city of man versus the city of God in general.
What does John mean when he says that the woman is a prostitute? He is not talking literally about sexual sin. John picks up on the OT, on passages like Ezekiel 16, where Israel’s failure to worship the Lord alone is called harlotry and whoredom. So, when it says in v. 2 that the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality with the harlot, and that the earthdwellers have become drunk with the wine of her sexual immorality, John is not focusing on sexual sin. His point is that worldly people have played the harlot with false gods. They have drunk the cup of a prostitute instead of drinking the cup of the Lord.
Why do people drink with the harlot instead of the Lord? One reason they do it is so that they will be praised by others. It is a wonderful feeling to have others compliment us, praise us, and like us. And the desire for praise from others can lead us away from the Lord. It can cause us to compromise with the world. We don’t want our friends at school or work or in the community to think we are strange. So, we are prone to compromise because we love the glory of men more than the glory of God. There is a worldly spirit that threatens us all of us, so that we long to be accepted, and hence we compromise with the culture of the day instead of standing up against it.
The character of prostitute and her relationship with the beast (v. 3-6)
In v. 3 John is carried away into the wilderness by the Spirit, and sees the woman sitting on the beast. Now in John’s day the Beast was the Roman Empire, and we have already seen that the woman was Rome. The beast stands for the political and military power of the empire, and the woman for the social, political, economic, and cultural dimensions of the empire. It is the city of man versus the city of God.
The seven heads and ten horns emphasize the political power of the beast. The woman, on the one hand, is dazzling. She is arrayed in stunning colors: purple and scarlet. She is adorned with gold and precious jewels and pearls. She beckons to the world and says that you will find joy and fulfillment and happiness with me. She has a golden cup, and a golden cup typically holds something delightful. But shock of shocks: This cup has abominations and the uncleanness of sexual sin. In other words, this golden cup focuses on idolatry, for we have already seen that John does not focus on literal sexual sin but on unfaithfulness to the Lord.
And here the woman is called Babylon, recalling the great empire that persecuted and resisted Israel in the OT. I think with the reference to Babylon we have a hint that the city is more than Rome, that it manifests itself in a way through every city that fosters idolatry. And there will be a final fulfillment, where the evil of Babylon and Rome will reach its climax.
We can see the character of Babylon even now in the cities of this world, but it will have a climactic fulfillment at the end of history. The woman lifts the cup to her lips, and horror of horrors she drinks the blood of those who love and worship the Lord Jesus. She puts to death believers in Jesus. No wonder John is astonished. On one hand, the woman is strikingly beautiful and attractive. But behind the beauty is a profound and deep evil.
How captivating the world is. How easy it is to compromise. It is worrying to see evangelicals who are starting to compromise on abortion. They argue that social justice and abortion are of equal concern, and one must not be put above another. But such reasoning is clearly wrong, for abortion is the direct murder of innocent life. And the OT is clear that social justice consists in caring for the weaker members of society. Clearly, murdering little ones is a direct violation of God’s commands.
But the matter of social justice is much more complex, for people of good will disagree on what policies best advance social justice. But the matter of killing the unborn is crystal clear. So, it is very troubling that some are compromising on this matter. It very much looks as if the compromise stems from a worldly spirit, since those who compromise are complimented by the world and are told that they are more nuanced, sensitive, and broad-minded than those who would not compromise on abortion.
The mystery of the beast (vv. 7-11)
In vv. 7-11 John clues us into the mystery of the beast. What John says here is difficult to understand, and there are many different views. I don’t pretend to know for sure what John means. But here we go. John says the Beast was, and is not, and is to come. But if the Beast is the Roman empire, how can he say it is not present, since when John was writing the empire continued? Remember from chapter 13 that the Beast is a combination of all the evil empires in history. The kingdoms of this world are like ravaging and ferocious animals that resist the Lord and oppress his people. The Beast “was” in that it existed in the past: whether we think of Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, etc. In other words, the Beast has different manifestations throughout history. I think John says the Beast “is not,” because he recalls the wound given to the Beast in chapter 13. Perhaps the deadly wound refers to the death blow dealt to Beast by virtue of Christ’s resurrection.
But John prophesies that the Beast’s power will return. It will experience a resurrection of sort. And the earthdwellers, i.e., unbelievers, whose names are not written in the book of life, will be astonished and give their allegiance to the Beast when they see that it rises again. In other words, human beings almost always back what looks like a winner.
How easy it is when power shifts to a new group to shift along with it. It looks as if evangelicals are losing influence in our culture. How tempting it is to shift so that we will still fit in, so that we will still have some respect. Now we can be tempted on the other side as well. Sometimes believers pander to conservative Christians as well, and say things to get fellow-believers nodding in approval. Sometimes the language used by conservatives to get such support is intemperate and irresponsible. Sometimes there is more smoke than fire. We are called upon to be faithful to the gospel, to stand for the truth no matter what the consequences.
Verses 10-11 are particularly difficult. “They are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while. As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction.” What is John talking about here? Some have tried to make this fit by seeing a sequence of emperors, starting with Julius Caesar as emperor, and then they end up with Nero or Domitian as the eighth in this list. But the problem is that some emperors have to be skipped to make this reading work, and so this interpretation is not convincing.
Others have read this list in terms of empires starting with Egypt and ending with Rome. But again it is hard to make this fit since it is difficult to know which empires should be included, so that we end up with eight total. In other words, the list of which empires to include becomes rather arbitrary. It is probably best, then, to read the prophecy symbolically. The number seven stands for completeness. John is telling us that the end has not yet come. The Beast’s power is not over. There is a fulfillment to come. And the final fulfillment of the prophecy, the eighth kingdom and king, will partake of the all the evil qualities of the kingdom’s that preceded his.
So, great evil still awaits us. We must prepare ourselves for difficult days ahead. We are not promised smooth paths. We are promised that there will be many adversaries. So, we must ask the Lord to grant us faith, hope, and courage. We will never be faithful on our own.
The beast’s allies (vv. 12-14)
Verses 12-13 tell us that the beast will not act alone. He will have allies. The ten horns symbolize authority and power of the ten kings. Most likely, the number is not literal. John is simply telling us that many will assist the Beast in foisting evil upon the world. The Beast and his allies will fight against the Lamb. They will resist the spread of the gospel in the world. They will speak against the truth of the Christian worldview. They will put to death those who claim to be Christians. But they will never ever defeat the Lamb. He will conquer them at his second coming. He is the Lord of lords and the King of kings. Nor will they defeat those of us who belong to the Lamb.
How do we belong to the Lamb? If you are an unbeliever, you should know that the Lamb is Jesus Christ. He shed his blood for our sins and was raised from the dead so that we could be right with God. All of us who trust in his sacrifice, instead of in our own righteousness, and who give our lives to him will be saved. And we will share the Lamb’s victory over evil.
But John probes further and asks how it is that we belong to the Lamb? What accounts finally for our believing and trusting in Christ? Is it some virtue in us? Absolutely not. We have been called and chosen by God. We believe and repent because he has chosen us before the foundation of the world. We can take no credit for believing, for we have been effectually called to faith through the powerful word of the gospel. So, our salvation is all of grace. Even our belief and repentance is a gift of God. We praise God for granting us faith, for giving us eyes to see so that we repent. And those who are truly called and truly elect are faithful to the end. The evidence of the genuineness of our faith is our perseverance, our continuing to believe. God doesn’t call anyone to faith without also sustaining their faith. Praise God that the one who began the good work in us will continue it until the day of Christ Jesus.
The downfall of the prostitute (vv. 1, 16-17)
John begins the chapter by proclaiming that the great prostitute will be judged. But we learn something fascinating here about how she will be judged. We see hear that evil turns upon itself. The Beast and the ten kings will come to hate the prostitute. The old alliance of evil will fall apart. The Beast and his kings will turn against the Prostitute and destroy her. Evil unravels on the inside. Evil people can never remain friends forever.
Remember when Hitler and Stalin made a peace pact at the beginning of WWII? It was no surprise that Hitler broke the agreement. Evil can’t sustain itself since it is inherently self-destructive.
John tells us how the Beasts and the ten kings turn against the harlot in v. 17. “God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.” In destroying the woman the Beast and evil kings are carrying out God’s will. Indeed, God put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose. Now here we face the wonder of God’s revelation. God is not evil and he never tempts people to sin. And yet God was sovereignly in control of the evil decisions of the Beast and the ten kings. He used their evil decisions to accomplish his will.
The Bible never excuses the evil people do. Never. The evil of human beings is condemned as wrong. They have wrongly violated God’s will. And yet, though God himself is not evil, he reigns over all the evil that is done. Nothing happens apart from his will. No evil is done that does not pass through his hands. And so, we can take great comfort for our own lives and for the course of history. Nothing can threaten God’s purposes. You can say: My Father is always taking care of me, even in the hardest times. He is working out the tapestry of his purposes even if I can’t see the design. He never leaves me or forsakes me. All the evil that comes to me is because he loves me. And, all the evil that comes to the church will never defeat her. She will conquer all her foes. She will reign with the Father and the Son forever and ever.
Thomas Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his many books are Romans, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.